With Paul Ryan’s ascent to the Republican ticket, Ayn Rand returned to contemporary political conversation. Her artistic abilities aside – she has all the weaknesses of Wordsworth’s Romantics with none of their attendant strengths –Rand’s supporters tout her Objectivist individualism as an answer to the claims of Leviathan. But, paradoxically, her defense of individual freedom provides a self-defeating apologia for the American welfare state.
Certainly, Rand offered powerful, deeply moral arguments against the communist and socialist regimes of her day. In her brief essay, ‘The Monument Builders,’ she offers an excellent description of the true nature of communitarian impulses borne out behind the Iron Curtain. Rand noted that the demands of benevolence and of the great society of all humanity were enough to justify the “bullet-riddled bodies of fleeing children” in East Berlin, the rise of thugs to power in the Soviet bloc, and monuments to prestige built on the backs of slaves from Pharaoh’s pyramids to Soviet dams and canals. She correctly observed that any industrialization, economic development, or public grandeur produced in the Soviet Union was “erected on a foundation of human corpses.” No doubt some of these sentiments need to be echoed again as Russian President Vladimir Putin has recently hearkened back to Stalin’s reign of terror as a time of great improvement.
But Rand’s opposition to the all-encompassing Leviathan state contains the seeds of her own defeat insofar as she reduces community to a contract between individuals that follows economic principles. “There is no such entity as ‘the public,’ since the public is merely a number of individuals,” she says in that same essay.
Rand articulates her view of the individual more thoroughly in ‘The Objectivist Ethics.’ Here she lays out what she believes to be the cosmic and metaphysical defense of the individual: “An ultimate value is that final goal or end to which all lesser goals are the means –and it sets the standard by which all lesser goals are evaluated. An organisms life is its standard of value: that which furthers its life is the good, that which threatens it is the evil.” From this crabbed teleology, Rand concludes that the science of ethics is the science of determining “the values [man’s] survival requires.” The conclusions of the essay can be summarized in a sole sentence: “The Objectivist ethics holds man’s life as the standard of value –and his own life as the ethical purpose of every individual man.” Ethics is collapsed into economics.
Here we have Ms Rand’s answer to the murder-fueled regimes of mid-century communism: The Individual is the sole scale of value, individual freedom is necessary to the individual survival, she says, and my survival is the sole end of my existence. Community, in this scheme of values, is entirely without meaning, or at least without objective claims upon the individual.
Rand’s reasoning has utility when arguing with Stalin, but the claims of the American state are not those of Soviet Russia – not that an American Leviathan is good, but it defends itself on different grounds. In fact, American statism’s apologia is the individual freedom so touted by Ayn Rand, complete with her denial of the claims of the community on the individual. One need look no further than the ‘Life of Julia’ campaign to see that American statism is built around the idea of highly independent, atomized individuals that cannot be bothered with claims from direct community.
‘Julia,’ a hypothetical American woman, is shown to be independent from birth to death. She needs no husband, no father or mother, no connection with adult children in her old age. None of these people are necessary to her survival and flourishing, and none of these people are obligated to her for their survival or flourishing. The ad-campaign shows that, with a bit of government help, she is more independent than anyone has ever been able to be.
A better answer to increased statism may have more to do with the real and actual obligations that weave communities together through shared duties and liberties than with Rand’s radical individualism. Julia’s parents have obligations to her that stem from their natural relationship to her, just as Julia has the natural and real obligation to provide support for them some day. The obligation of her parents corresponds to a right on her behalf to receive their care and affection, just as the obligation she has to her child corresponds to her child’s right to her love and her physical support.
Here, at least, the idea of ‘community’ is neither subjective (as Rand claims), nor based strictly on personal choice in value transactions such as the free market requires. Instead, it depends upon a web of natural duties and obligations that — when gutted of their natural force by law and society — will inevitably be replaced by the ever-increasing and all-encompassing state. If the only true scale of values is our independent existence freed from any moral or legal obligation to one another, then people need an all-encompassing state to liberate them from those other people who would otherwise form our natural communities: aging parents, destitute siblings, needy children.
The answer to Rand and the Leviathan lies at the basis of Western culture, which has warned from the beginning against a radical individualism against natural community. Consider Homer’s Odyssey, in which monsters fill the space between the wandering hero, Odysseus, and his home. The real monsters in this 2,800 year-old epic do things far worse than eating men whole: they do not meet in the assembly together, having “no meeting place for council…not a care in the world for any neighbor.” What’s more, they make men forget home.
James Joseph is a researcher and writer in Michigan.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire